Cormaria, ever beautiful, was brimming with welcome as we arrived on Monday, July 9, to begin a week that would bring learning and joy beyond expectation. The topic was the life and writings of St. Paul, and the presenter, Father Sean Martin, a priest/teacher from Dallas, Texas, seemed to hold Paul of Tarsus as his best friend.
We were introduced to Paul as an unlikely leader. He was not a good speaker and his spirituality was one of failure. He encountered much resistance. But his rock and fortress, source of indomitable courage and zeal, was Jesus Christ. He describes his relationship with Jesus in very personal terms. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
For Paul, self-emptying and exaltation were two sides of the same reality. He expresses this with poetic vision in his hymn to Christ (Phil. 2:6-11), “Though he was in the form of God…he emptied himself…even unto death, death on a cross…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Paul’s self-presentation (2 Cor. 12; 7-10) underlines the connection between suffering and the glory of the Risen Christ. “We are only earthen vessels…persecuted but never deserted, knocked down but never killed, always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may always be seen in our body.” Describing the experience of this contradiction in his own body as “a thorn in the flesh,” Paul writes, “I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but he has said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’”
The conclusion of this reflection is, “So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may remain over me, and that is why I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
Some passages in Paul’s letters suggest that he thought the “coming of the Lord” was near at hand. For instance, he writes in 1 Thes. 5:1-7 and 23 “…you know very well that the Day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night… stay awake and sober…. May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul, and body, for the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The contrasts in Paul’s writings – life and death, hope and tribulation – give us a sense of how he was able to embrace shipwreck, persecutions, and every manner of hardship as channels of grace. His life testifies to the truth of Elizabeth Dreyer’s reflection in Suffering and the Christian Life (Orbis Books, 2013), “The mystery of suffering is above all concerned with…the power of the Spirit, who as Gift and Love brings life and courage, humility, and creativity.”
All too quickly, a week of graced learning and true festivity came to an end. The Ritual of Farewell at our final Eucharist was animated by the words of Paul (1 Cor. 12:4), “There are different kinds of gifts, but one Spirit.” Each of us received a handcrafted gift, a packet of coasters made by indigenous women in Guatemala. We treasure these as a reminder of the blessings shared during the festival and of the wealth of creativity of the poor in our world.